Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Are Lakers Lions in a Lamb’s World?

By Bob Ekstrom

When Kobe Bryant guaranteed the Los Angeles Lakers would make this year's playoffs, pundits claimed he was putting his legacy on the line but it was hardly that. After all, this is essentially the same team that Metta World Peace believed could win 73 games. Even with the losses of Jordan Hill and Pau Gasol, the Lakers are stacked and Bryant has a slam-dunk guarantee, with or without the face of Josh Smith as backdrop.

The truth is, even with GM Mitch Kupchak's offseason scavenger hunt, the Lakers and their league-highest $100 million payroll including three of the top 10 individual salaries — need a lot of help, and Bryant knows he can count on it. Today's NBA has too little talent spread over too broad of a base to provide much of a fight to any team with even a modicum of determination. We all know this to be true but choose to suppress it. Bryant, on the other hand, has embraced it and incorporated it into his formula to get to May.

It's a fluke that he ever found himself in the position of making guarantees in the first place. The Lakers have made franchise art out of acquiring the best big men the league has to offer and riding their backs to titles — George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabber, Shaquille O'Neal — and now they've added Dwight Howard to the list. Throw in Steve Nash to fill their one glaring hole at point guard and a core triumvirate of Bryant, Gasol and Peace, and the Lakers appeared able to dial up any win total they wanted. Why not 73-9?

Yet Hollywood took the court as a dysfunctional squad back in October, and within the week after Thanksgiving had already blown Peace's prognostication to hell. Most of the Laker-hating free world delighted in the in-fighting and Mike D'Antoni bashing and their effect in the standings as the Lakers sank to their eventual low water mark of 17-25 on January 23. But we all forgot one basic thing: the safety net of bad teams woven by under-developed young players and nomadic journeymen simply would not allow them to fall any further.

Their 13-5 run since then is an indictment on just how distant the pro game is now from where it was a generation ago. In those 18 games, they've faced only 4 teams with a winning percentage of .600 or better. In fact, they lost 3 of them, fairly representative of a season in which they are 3-15 against the upper echelon.

What's different about this streak is that they're now beating the huddled masses of mediocrity that are the Association's staple. Through January 23, the Lakers were 15-13 against teams who've won less than 60% of their games. They're 12-2 since, including 6-1 against teams winning less than 40% of the time. It's as if Bryant & Co. suddenly discovered that as obstacles go, the rank-and-file teams that compose two-thirds of the NBA offer about as much resistance as a light summer breeze.

It's not like there weren't bad teams in the 1980s and 1990s. Thirty seasons ago, a third of the teams were contenders, a third sought their identity, and a third struggled. Same thing 20 years ago. In every year, the composite winning percentage has always been .500. This is a case where the numbers don't support what the eye can see. Teams today don't play 48 hard-nosed minutes like they used to. They have more quit in them nowadays, and maturity is at issue.

If you have designs on becoming a pro basketball player, you've never had better chances. There are 390 potential roster spots to fill each summer. Thirty years ago, there were 268 (only 15 teams carried an optional 12th player in the 1982-83 season). That's 122 more job openings, and to fill them the NBA has gone younger. Last year, 66 players registered for early entry into the draft. Of the 60 players selected, 39 were underclassman (including international players under age 22), including 26 of 30 first-round selections.

There's no question that the current ranks are filled with the best athletic talent the league has ever seen. It just doesn't come out to play regularly, and when it does it's usually less for the winning and more for ESPN highlights and impressing celebrities in attendance. Or each other. Before the 'When Magic Met Isiah' romantic undercurrent of the 1988 NBA Finals, fraternization was a breach of competitive protocol. Now it's the norm from pregame warm-ups to post-game interviews and every tweet in between. Could you imagine Kevin McHale, Bill Laimbeer, and Kurt Rambis all orchestrating an opportunity to play together?

The disturbing thing in all of this is that most teams don't maintain stamina and intestinal fortitude over the course of a 48-minute game, much less an 82-game schedule. The lion one night gets punched in the mouth the next and becomes the lamb. This is the backdrop in which Bryant has put his legacy on the line.

The Lakers have 22 games remaining, 9 of which are against sub-.400 teams. Including Tuesday's contest in Oklahoma City, they have only four tough opponents on the schedule. Wins are everywhere for the picking, even for a non-contender like the Lakers. It never required the clairvoyance of Nostradamus to see they would eventually come around, nor the perseverance of Job to make it happen.

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